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shameless pleading

Hell in a Handbasket

Doom express.

Dear Word Detective:  Why do we say that someone is “going to Hell in a handbasket”?  Why a “handbasket”?  What exactly does the full expression mean? — Sharm.

Well, it means that person is in a heap o’ trouble, on a slippery slope, circling the drain and on the road to perdition.  But before we all get to gloating, we should note that a lot of us seem to be “handbasketeers” today.  A quick search of Google News turns up more than 300 recent news media uses of “hell in a handbasket,” including this cheery note from the New York Daily News: “The economy is going down the drain, the cost of living is going through the roof, and low-income New Yorkers are going to hell in a handbasket” (July 11, 2008).  And things are no better Down Under, to judge from the Australian newspaper The Age: “It’s hell in a handbasket time, or so it seems judging by the recent rush of bad news on all fronts” (July 20, 2008).  It looks like buying stock in a handbasket manufacturer may be your best bet at this point.

I first tackled this question back in 1996, with limited success.  Unfortunately, the origin of “going to hell in a handbasket,” meaning “to deteriorate, especially rapidly,” hasn’t become any more certain in the years since.  We do know that the phrase is an American invention, and that it first appeared in print, as far as we know, in 1865:  “Thousands of our best men were prisoners in Camp Douglas, and if once at liberty would ‘send abolitionists to hell in a hand basket.’”

The question, of course, is “why a handbasket”?  Is there something particularly diabolical about handbaskets (small baskets with handles, usually used for carrying fruit or flowers) that makes them suitable for conveying one to Hades?  The answer appears to be no, since “going to hell in a handcart” seems to be a popular variant in Britain, and “going to hell in a bucket” is popular on the internet (as well as a wide variety of lame puns such as “going to hell in a Hummer” and “in a handbag”).

I think the addition of “in a handbasket” (or “handcart”) served two purposes.  The first is simple alliteration, always a good way to make a phrase catchy and memorable.  The second, the idea of being carried to hell in a basket or cart, makes the journey more concrete in the listener’s mind, since “go to hell” by itself is a worn phrase hardly anyone takes literally anymore.  The basket or cart also implies swift and irrevocable transport to doom.

32 comments to Hell in a Handbasket

  • GuanoLad

    A friend of mine suggested it stemmed from the baskets used to catch the heads at the guillotine. I suspect that is so “obvious” it must be wrong.

  • Stephen

    Although it may have become such, I don’t see speed as the essential element in the phrase. Instead I see someone being so messed up that what’s left of him can can be delivered there in a handbasket (or handcart, as the case may be).

  • Sherwood Bishop

    “Handbasket” is also a term for the woven gondola which carries passengers below a hot-air or other balloon. The first manned flights of hot-air balloons were in 1783, in France. Before the first untethered flight in France, there was concern that the balloon might fly to heaven or hell, and King Louis XVI decreed that condemned criminals would be the first pilots, although two French balloon pioneers successfully petitioned him for the honor. Balloons were also used on both sides during the U.S. Civil War for surveillance and map making, so soldiers in 1865 could have easily been familiar with the term. Believe it or not, the first Civil War balloon, used at the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861, was named the Enterprise.

  • C.

    I always figured it derived from the conveyance of small animal companions — lap dogs, kittens — in such basket. Like, being carried there swiftly by an external power, with you gormless and ignorant of your doom.

  • Laura M

    Possibly from old mining practice of lowering children down in baskets to mines through smaller shafts. Fast drop by hand and rope in more primitive mines. Loss of control would be death. Thus “Hell in a Hand Basket” meant a fast plunge into danger/death.

    Just a theory…

  • Arnold Ruiz

    Hell implies the devil that he is throwing everyone into his handbasket implies to me the methodology of the antichrist. The people of Our world today are selecting for themselves the devil’s handbasket. The handbasket is a mode of transportation.The destination fits the goal of the people conjoined in any democratic society in the world today. Denial of Christ. is antichrist.

  • Arnold Ruiz

    Words only mean what we agreethey mean. The same goes for phrases and stories.Parables are the thing.Get this sylogism. A domineerin personality creates a tyrant.A tyrant with power becomes an imperialist.We know power corrupsts. How can we be surprised that those to whom we give power will not turn on us. A safty clause is written into the contract called a fiduciary. Every government official has a duty t think in the best interest of his constituents before he thinks about his oun best interest. Legislators have droped the clause.

  • cj

    I always had the impression that the person going to hell in a handbasket was gliding merrily along, imagining that s/he was being lulled into something unknowingly. The analogy being that many can’t see (or don’t care to see) where they’re headed, as long as they’re comfortable in the process. I always pictured it as Moses floating along the river.

  • It seems like I hear someone say this expression every day. Here is my reply!

    Things are going to hell in a bandbasket:

    http://www.youtube.com/drewwcook#p/u/12/567v_GePgro

  • hi folks,
    you have a newsletter?
    and also,can you help me with the following meaning…there’s a new england saying, “they have seen the elephants & heard the hooty owl.”
    i welcome your help. if you answer it could you direct me.
    thanks, joey messina

    • Paul

      Cowboys drove cattle to a Rail head, where they were loaded and sent to Terminals at Kansas City, Chicago etc.
      Young,newer cowboys collected their wages,boarded the train,and went to the BIG CITY for the First time,
      This was a GRAND Experience knwn as “GOING TO SEE THE
      ELEPHANT”. Taking in all the Strange sights and Sounds.
      After such an exhilerating journey,returning to a Staid,Normal life was very Peaceful. Peaceful enough to
      “HEAR AN OWL HOOT”.A statement about Life Experience.
      I hope you find this helpful.

  • Jenny Atkinson

    I wonder if the saying refers to the Mormon handcart pioneers. Leaving from Iowa City going to Salt Lake City. Particularly to the fourth and fifth companies who left in June/July 1856 and arrived in November 1856

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mormon_handcart_pioneers

  • Rhonda M.

    I just heard the other day on show about mining, they were talking about that phrase originating
    from mining. I can’t remember exactly what they said, I just caught a bit of it. It had to be on
    either the History channel or history international or discovery channel or Natgeo.

  • if that is an expression then so be it. i still can’t see the resemblance of that phrase to its meaning.

  • Tyler

    Actually, the expression, “the world is going to hell in a handbasket” referred not to the speed or ease of the journey but to the degradation/stigma of the act and the unfortunate chaos surrounding it.

    It does indeed derive from the handbaskets used to catch a criminal’s head lopped off by a guillotine and was reflective of the uncertainty and chaos which surrounded the French Revolution when anyone could suddenly be put to death for just about anything and for seemingly no legitimate reason. It is also important to remember that having one’s head cut off (ending up in a handbasket) was considered a particularly degrading and humiliating act.

  • Brook Bullinger

    Its a metaphor for casket. Basket = Casket/coffin

  • Gerardo

    If “going nowhere, fast !” means wasting time and time is running out, “going to hell in an hand basket” it is the waste of time plus it’s damaging effect and lack of control.
    Something is deteriorating and the circumstances are helping the deterioration process.
    The “hand basket” is just a “vehicle” that speed up/facilitate the process of “going to hell.”
    A ride of sort that gives you no control on the path you are following.
    You should “hold on to your horses” ,“get your ducks in a row” and “Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst”

  • mrc

    I just love all those phrases. It is amazing how many we use every day!

  • Jordan

    I am looking for the real origin. I know it is not an American phrase do to the fact that in the bible writen it is spoken a few times and the fact that the phrase has circled threw out egypt as far back as when Cleopatra had to flee Egypt for the last time she put her baby in it with a parchment that said to the underworld in a babybasket, but even then the saying was not new. It is rumored to be far older than that. I want to know about the true origin not what is just made up to make america greater than it really is.

  • Don

    There was a book labelled Book of Origins that indicated the phrase “Hell in a handbasket” referred to the gold rush of 1949 where men were lowered by hand in baskets down mining shafts to set dynamite. If there was a probelm or they did not get out quick enough, it was referred to as going to Hell in a handbasket. Anyway, it seems like another alternative to the phrase.

  • Jim Ward

    An imperialist is one bent on empire, not power.

  • Gary Harris

    I picture a wealthy Roman Senator being carried down the street in a basket. One man on each of the four corners. The ride is smooth, the curtains are drawn. The Senator is oblivious to the rough road, oblivious to the rubbish,mess,choas around him and the distress and anger of his fellow citizens. He is going to hell in a hand basket and he does not know it.

  • Dave

    He’s “Hell bent on election” yet if elected I fear the community will go to “Hell in a handbasket”. So “hope for the best” that the other guy gets elected. I’ve seen him “hammered and nailed to the wall” and now we see him with his “back to the wall” because of his outburst at a heckler.

  • Bill

    I think that if the origin of the saying is ever found it will be almost prehistorical. The reason I say this is that humans were using baskets of various kinds made from reeds, branches, or hides about 50,000 years ago. It is extremely likely that whatever bad places people were going for displeasing their gods they could have been going in a basket. Our equivalent of cremation was the common form of disposing of the dead during these times and those going to their equivalent to heaven were sent off in a highly ritualized ceremony guarantying they would be with their gods of the sun, moon, or whatever. Those who had acted in defiance of those gods were likely treated in a much different manner. In one Amazon tribe, according to Malinowski, they would gather the ashes and bury them deep in the ground thus denying them access to their god. He did not specify what they used to gather their ashes nor what they put them in but it could have well been a small basket or pot. Thus, they were being sent to hell, or at least denied access to their heaven, in a basket or a pot. This tribe’s rituals were said to have been unchanged for thousands of years since he was the first outsider to have ever studied them.

  • stacy frisbey

    i have been having problems with my bestfriend,and i have not been myself for mental reasons,but i wanted to know if i have done anything to my friend and i appologized to him if i hurt him.well my other friend said all i know is hand in a basket.

  • Paul

    I always thought that going to hell in a hand basket meant that there was so little of it left that it would fit in a hand basket.

  • Feisty

    My grandmother told me the saying came from the cash carry systems in old department stores. A rope-and-pulley system carried your money up to the cash office in a small basket. The cashier made change and issued a receipt, which was carried back down to the sales counter in the basket.

    The descent of the basket was quicker than the trip up and you were always poorer for it.

  • A friend of mine told me this expression stems from early wars in the beginning of our time, when people went out with hand basket to pick up any remaining body parts.

  • Klig

    Since there is also the well used phrase goin to hell in a bucket (most excellently used by Bob Weir in the Dead song “Hell in a bucket”), the phrase hell in a handbasket conveys the same mental image of a free fall ride to the pit in a tiny cramped mode, while also being alliterative with the letter h.

  • SWesT

    This may not have any real implications, but when I hear basket I think of a woven, usually wicket, container. This material would be highly flammable. Thus hastening the combustion certainly present in the flames of hell. In my mind, this illustrates the dire condition and the rapidly deteriorating condition. What could be worse than heading towards fire in something that burns quickly?

  • To Hell in a Hand Basket
    By Ronnie Bray

    I knew what “Going to Hell in a hand basket” meant before I began my research on its origin and meaning, but after my research I am richer in experience but more ignorant in understanding. Perhaps I will invoke some words said by patron saint of serious writers,

    Tho’ old the thought and oft expressed,
    ‘Tis his at last who says it best.

    But, first, some explanation. My wife’s mother, Hazel Cahoon Clawson, was a good-hearted, sincere, faithful, and doughty Christian lady who used terms handed down to her from generations of equally doughty pioneers who were among the first to settle the West long before it was wild, and long before Motel 6 offered comfort to travellers who had wrecked their skeletons riding on Greyhound busses.

    Gay’s Momma was a pithy descendant of the Clan Colquohoon who had title to vast estates on the west bank of Loch Lomond, and whose ancestry runs back through the Tudors, Plantaganets, Norse Kings, and links all the royal families of Europe. She was of diminutive size, but made up for her lack of inches by a feistiness that would shrink a William Wallace.

    Hazel was a no-nonsense kind of woman, and holds the record for the shortest serving Primary teacher in the history of the Mormon Church. The first lesson she taught was constantly interrupted by two young boys who would not do as bidden. Hazel knocked their heads together and they were transformed into angels of light for the remainder of the lesson.

    However, one of the lads belonged to the bishop, and when he reported his summary discipline Hazel was released the following Sunday before her hair had pushed back up where it was before the heavy hands of three farmers who formed the bishopric pressed it down when blessing her into the post seven days earlier.

    According to Gay, who is my source for ‘local knowledge’ in all matters American, her Momma used to say, “They’ll all go to Hell in a hand basket!” Although I have my own theory as to what this actually means others have speculated and done a decent job of figuring out what they don’t know, which is what speculating is.

    My approach is deductive rather than scientific, but deduction in the service of homliletics can produce interesting results, as you will see by my conclusion. But first, consider what others have said on the subject.

    There is widespread agreement across the spectrum of pedagogues, parsons, and semanticists that “going to hell in a hand basket,” means that the person so journeying is rapidly and utterly deteriorating.

    Slang historian Eric Partridge dates the term to the early 1920′s, and so does Christine Ammer who adds that the alliteration of ‘Hell’ and ‘hand basket’ most likely made the saying memorable, therefore popular. She suggests that as baskets are “light and easily conveyed,” the term “means going to hell easily and rapidly.” No argument there.

    However, at least one who has brought his mind to bear on the saying is convinced that adding ‘hand basket’ or ‘bucket,’ as some variants reading have it, sounds ‘more dire and hopeless than simply “going to hell.”’

    One contributor to the debate interjects a variation: “Going to hell in a handcart.” Not having Mormon pioneers among his ancestry this poor fellow asks us to ‘picture a handcart as a kind of wheelbarrow.’ And adds, ‘Maybe the person in question is so dissipated by sin that he or she has to be carried to hell.’ Ah, that maybe, and others are not far from that resolution.

    One person, who probably comes from a small town called Off-the-Wall, somewhere near the northern border of North Dakota,” opines, “I think it has to do with Dorothy’s dog, Todo in the Wizard of Oz, being carried off in the basket on the school teacher’s bike.” However, this contributor causes fatal damage to their case by confessing to having a grandmother born in the 1860′s who used the term “going to hell in a handbasket” long before Toto rode in the bicycle basket in “The Wizard of Oz” in book or cinematographic form.

    Yet another offers the possibility that the phrase could have come from the French Revolution in which the heads of the Aristos rolled or popped off the Guillotine and were then transported in baskets. Since they were criminals they were Hell-bound, and so were off to “Hell in a hand basket.” That argument would have more force if the phrase was, “Your head is going to Hell in a hand basket,” for while a head might fit nicely in one of those pretty provincial baskets, getting a whole body into it to cart it to the Plutonian domains would be troublesome.

    ‘Going to Hell,’ is used in a similar sense as is ‘going to the dogs,’ but without a particular conveyance the phrase loses all its force, and falls as flat as a pancake. Besides which, Hazel Cahoon Clawson was a religious woman and so was all her family, so it is essential that, to do justice to her expression, we must seek out the spiritual dimension in the practical world in which she lived.

    Although no one has found the phrase in print earlier than nineteen-forty, it was probably in oral circulation well before then. One of its apparent parents made an appearance in the ‘Wichita Daily Times,’ Wichita Falls, Texas, in May of nineteen-thirteen, where the seed of our saying seems well evident.

    “And when you won’t buy from me and I can’t buy from you we’ll both go down the tobog to ruin in a handbasket.”

    The means of transport is clear enough, and the ‘tobog’ is the name given to the slippery slope used by tobogganers. This version did not catch on with the Great American Public for the simple reason that Uncle Sam’s children are, mostly, at heart a pastoral folk who like to use words that other people consider swearing, and justify their use by appeal to agrarian context and spiritual infusion. So, saying “Hell” in any context except by itself as an outlet for anger goes down well with them.

    In common parlance and only slightly askew is the sippet of information that “Hell in a handbag” refers to a person who is troublesome or hard to handle, and comes in a package small enough o be accommodated in a small bassinet. Thus, a small woman with a fierce temper would be referred to as “Hell in a hand basket.”

    In Fairford church, Gloucestershire, the sixteenth century stained glass west window depicts the Day of Judgement. The innocent are going to heaven and the guilty going to Hell. Among the Hell-bound is an elderly lady in a wheelbarrow being taken to her just deserts by a turquoise clad tormentor. That sets the idea of “going to hell in a handcart” at a ripping five hundred years distance.

    Although a good hundred years later, in a sermon of 1626, The Reverend Tom Adams averred

    “This oppressor must needs go to heaven. But it will be, as the byword is, in a wheelbarrow: the fiends, and not the angels, will take hold on him.”

    Although the reverend gentleman seems confused as to who is going where, the means of conveyance is indisputable. Perhaps he is suggesting, wryly, that going to heaven in a wheelbarrow is inverted humorous rhetoric for ‘Going to hell in a handcart,’ although we scrape our pates to find some connexion ‘twixt demons and handcarts.

    It has been suggested, however, that the reference could have been drawn from ‘hell-cart,’ a name given in the early seventeenth century to a carriage used by French Dames de la nuit.

    Decapitation was common from the early Middle Ages, and the Halifax Gibbet, a precursor of Monsieur Guillotine’s capital contraption, was in use at the time of the Norman Conquest. Like its Parisian improvement, it caused severed heads to drop into panniers for ease of dumping. Thus the term “Head in a Handbasket” referred to a wretched result.

    However, heads in hand baskets are oblique to our purpose here, and so in the interests of mercy I press that subject no further as it does little to address our subject at its sharp end, although interesting in a tangential sort of way, much as hot dogs are interesting at a baseball game, but that is not why people go to them.

    There is sufficient evidence for wheeled barrows being employed as conveyances to take the unfortunate to the hot place, so I will look to principle rather than literality, and suggest that the means of conveyance are of no importance because they are nothing more than what philosophers call accidents.

    The difference between a hand-basket, a handcart, and a wheelbarrow in this context is as unimportant as whether someone hits you on the head with a shovel, a hammer, or a lump of concrete. What matters in the first case is that you get carried, and in the second case that you get to hospital. Whether you get there in a woven or otherwisely constructed conveyance is another of those philosophical accidents that do not contribute to our disposition of the case. So we will leave that aside.

    If you take someone and put them in a basket, they will go wherever the basket is taken. They are no longer in control of their destiny or their destination. Likewise, the mediaeval Christian teaching that while those who have secured heaven for their eternal habitation will move freely towards their everlasting crowns in the Kingdom of God, those who are not partakers of the Divine favour will be taken without the use of their legs or volition to that place, and it will be useless then to ask the ones moving the vehicles to drop them off at a better place.

    I conclude, therefore, that going to Hell in any kind of basket or wheeled barrow is a folk judgement of inevitable doom for the disagreeable declared with all the force of a fatwah by one or more of those with whom they have disagreed.

    Whether the Divine Judge is bound by these pronouncements remains to be seen, although I entertain more than a suspicion that there will be people in the heavenly city with little bits of wickerwork stuck to their clothing and persons, and quite possibly some with aches and pains from the bumps along the road over which the barrows or carts have borne them thither.

    Things might not turn out as bad for us as prognosticators make them sound, and we might very well be surprised at who we meet in heaven when we finally get inside. And it will behove each of us not to react too sharply at that time if anyone expresses surprise at our presence in the Realms of Light! After all, if we were wrong about them and God’s disposition of them, perhaps they could also be wrong about our Grand Finale.

    Copyright © 2007 – Ronnie Bray
    ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

  • frances

    this is being over thought… I was brought up by my grandmother, if alive today she’d be 114 yers old. going to hell in a hand-basket stemmed from her as christians, whom held on to their hand-basket (todays purse, bag, wallet,etc) put worldly goods above the lord. thus were considered to be going to hell in a hand-basket.

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